Attempts to reckon with America’s history of racism have been difficult in the South, particularly the deep South states of Alabama and Mississippi. They are the only two states that celebrate Martin Luther King and Robert E. Lee’s birth on the same day. But on April 26, 2018, a new memorial and museum will challenge Montgomery, Alabama, to confront its own history of slavery, lynching, and Jim Crow laws, as well as the past’s relationship to mass incarceration.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is an outdoor structure that includes 800 monuments, each representing a U.S. county where lynchings occurred and listing the names of people killed in that county. Most radically, the memorial is surrounded by replica memorials for each of the 800 U.S. counties to come claim.
“Each county represented here will have the opportunity to take one of the figures back to their communities as a way to remember and to begin a conversation,” observed Nia-Malika Henderson, a senior political reporter for CNN, when she visited the memorial. “It will also be obvious which counties do not claim their monuments.”
There are more than 4,400 victims commemorated on the memorial’s rust-colored steel columns—800 more lynchings than had previously been recognized, according to the memorial’s website.
After the Civil War, lynching became a terrorist tactic that white people used to exert power over newly-freed black men and women. Although many Americans think of it as a Southern phenomenon, lynchings took place in the North, too. Lynching was not de jure legal in that it was carried out by a mob rather than a formal judge and jury. However, because lynchings went unchallenged in courts, they became a de facto form of legalized mob violence.
No rationale was needed for lynching, but the people who carried them out often accused black men of some perceived slight against white women. These slights could be non-criminal offenses like knocking on a woman’s door or criminal accusations like rape. However, because white people used lynching as a tool to intimidate black people and discourage them from exercising rights like voting, historians view these accusations with extreme skepticism. In 1955, a white woman named Carolyn Bryant Donham accused 14-year-old lynching victim Emmett Till of making “verbal and physical advances”; but years later, she admitted she’d made the whole thing up.
The memorial is about a 15-minute walk away from The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, which aims to show the historical progression from slavery to other forms of violent, racialized oppression. This includes lynch mobs, Jim Crow laws, terrorist actions against Civil Rights activists, and the mass incarceration of black people—a phenomenon that writer Michelle Alexander famously termed The New Jim Crow.